Maurya Simon’s sixth collection of poems, the visionary Ghost Orchid, begins, like Dante’s Commedia, in the middle of life, where we always are. The first section’s title poem, “Between Heaven and Earth,” reminds us that “The freshest beauty commences first / in the eye’s cathedral.” Without our mortal eyesight, “where a blueness / of sky blooms into the brain’s exaltations, / where awe rises and rises in a tide / of embraces and farewells,” there can be no deeper vision, no truer understanding of the larger spaces we can and in fact do inhabit. Changeable weather, tidal surges, the systole and diastole of joy and grief, define us and our place in the world, even as they limn what’s otherwise unknown and unknowable.
But if this book recalls any other texts, it recalls most, both musically and thematically, the poetic books of the Hebrew Bible, especially Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Simon reminds us repeatedly that one singing voice secures for us at every moment an appreciation of divine grace. Indeed, that grace depends on our structures of support. “How does God hold up heaven?” the poet asks in “Black Haloes.” Though we “have fallen five hundred fathoms / Below His grace. . . .it is we / Who balance his scaffolds, who upraise / Our aching arms eternally to bear up / The golden planks and invisible girders.”
The “ghost orchid” then becomes an apt figure for the human voice. This plant, Simon informs us in an endnote, is “a beautiful and curiously leafless epiphyte” that grows by attaching itself to another plant and by drawing sustenance from the air itself. We are each of us just such an inspired “ghost orchid” lodged in the heaven-supporting structure of body and mind. In “The Search,” “love,” the way we flower in the world, is “the only grace binding us / to each other with invisible threads,” like the epiphyte’s tough roots or the rich and playful sonic textures that dress “The Fallen Angel” in her “sequined g-string” as she entertains “the Vietnam vet amputee wringing / his empty sleeve like it’s the enemy’s throat,” or even The Old One himself in “Ode to Beelzebub,” decked out in “Armani garb, and smoking a Cuban cigar, / Sipping cappuccino instead of holy water…”
And of course this love, freely given, must be extended even to oneself. In “An Unkempt Brilliance I Fear But Cannot Name,” the poet is “a child dressed in wonder,” but also “naked, too, under a nightgown / Of clouds, under the shroud” of her own name: “How have I slipped so easily from blame / To reverence, from hurling stray stones, / To blessing my wounds, startling as garnets?” This question has no answer really but the continued testimony of song, which carries us over and over again right up to “this threshold of God-hobbled astonishment.”
The concluding poem, a long rapturous “Benediction” (dedicated to the memory of Allen Ginsberg) blesses “the man with the torturer’s mouth, /. . . the woman with the fossil soul,” indeed all of us fallen and grace-risen by the power of such blessing: “bless them all who are nameless and mad, / oh bless the man, yes, bless the woman.” Ghost Orchid, a graceful blessing from a poet at the height of her powers, deserves appreciative re-reading and joyous gratitude.
Poetry International Issue 10